Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

My Rating: 1.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 3.90 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.98 / 5.00

Diana Bishop comes from a long line of witches that stretches back to Salem and beyond. However, she refuses to follow her ancestors, preferring to be a scholar instead, becoming an expert on the history of Alchemy. While studying at the Bodleian Library in Oxford she suddenly discovers an ancient alchemical manuscript with magical overtones. After looking through it and being somewhat intrigued, she decides to return it to the collection and continue with her studies but the librarian has never heard of the text and has no idea how it came to be on the shelf. When she returns to look for it, the book is missing.

Matthew Clairmont is a vampire geneticist who is drawn to the magical burst that accompanies Diana opening the strange book, along with many other magically sensitive individuals. It seems it has been lost for centuries and is coveted by many within the supernatural community and they begin to circle Diana and haunt her steps. Matthew becomes fascinated by Diana and a budding romance ensues.

The premise for this book sounds intriguing, especially as I have studied the history of science, so I was expecting a historical mystery wrapped up with a little paranormal romance. I look at the blurb now and the most ominous aspect of it is the mention of it being “as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.” If I had seen that remark before opening the book I might have been spared the frustration of attempting to read it, because a comparison to Twilight is never going to persuade me that I am about to immerse myself in a great literary masterpiece.

So what exactly did I not like about this book? Well, let us start with the author’s obsessive compulsion to describe, in mind-blowingly tedious detail, every possible aspect of the Bodleian Library. Yes, Ms Harkness, I get it: you have been there and you really, really, REALLY loved it, but I do not need to know what color the carpet is in every room, nor how the seats are arranged, nor what is outside which windows, etc, etc, in order to follow the story. In fact, it was highly distracting and after the fourth or fifth mass of unnecessary detail it was getting rather frustrating. It slowed up the story, filled my mind with unimportant clutter and left me wondering why your editor did not simply draw big red crosses through whole pages of it. If I want to know more about the library I can use the Internet and read the webpage.

As a Brit, I often find that foreign authors try very hard to capture the essence of the United Kingdom and its culture and some come close enough that I can read their work without the mistakes poking me in the eye every five minutes. Ms Harkness did a reasonable job of many aspects of UK culture, although she did make a somewhat unforgivable mistake regarding the iconic Sir David Attenborough that I found annoying. She presents the great naturalist, communicator and film-maker as a pioneering research scientist: a claim that I am quite sure Sir David would find highly flattering but totally laughable. I fear that I really do need to start up that web-based business offering myself as an expert in ‘How to make your portrayal of the UK not want to make Brits bang their heads on a wall’.

Next, as Ms Harkness is a professional historian of science, I was shocked at her obvious misunderstanding of many aspects of science and the way in which it progresses. She confused various specializations that are totally different and completely separate, which is unforgivable because their definitions can be found using Google. She also has a deep misunderstanding of the personalities of most scientists. Her vampires are near immortal and given to scientific pursuits, but keep changing their names to fool the human scholars. OK, so we will put aside the fact that ego is a huge part of scientific research, especially when it comes to publication and taking the credit for discoveries, but the idea that a researcher would simply skip from one line of research to another without wanting to pursue his chosen obsession to the very end of eternity is absurd. I speak as a person who is married to a research scientist and who knows plenty of others. I will not dissect her claims for Matthew’s solitary unraveling of wolf genetics because I think I have made my point.

So, you are not British or a scientist and, therefore, these problems do not have an impact upon you. Are there any other problems with this book?

Unfortunately, yes, there are. Let us examine Diana, the witch who has spent her entire life denying her ancestry and refusing to practice her skills. Would you be surprised if I told you that she is actually one of the most powerful witches in the world? No? I have to admit that I was not surprised either, because that little nugget fits in with the overall stereotype that makes up our heroine. She is an orphan, a loner, she rejects her past, she is spunky, super intelligent and can look after herself, she is also amazingly powerful. This was a depressingly obvious decision, and led to other predictable phenomena. As a witch that has sworn off using any magic, for any reason, ever . . . she changes her mind when a book she wants is on a top shelf . . . I kid you not: that is the massively significant moment at which she chooses to try using her magical abilities rather than getting a step or even dragging her chair over to the shelf. Of course, she gently pulls the correct book from the shelf and floats it down to her hand with amazing control, even though she has never practiced using her telekinesis before. Needless to say, this had my eyes rolling quite a bit.

However, the point at which I stopped reading came when we discovered that she glows in the dark / when she is asleep. There is only so much of ‘special snowflake’ syndrome that I can take in my Mary Sue before I want to vomit, and this shot past that boundary and left it in the distance. But wait, what of our gorgeous hero, Matthew the Vampire? Well, we discover that Diana glows because he breaks into her bedroom and hovers over her watching her sleep. I am aware that this is something that Edward does in Twilight, and that is creepy enough even though he looks like a teenager, but Matthew is hundreds of years old. This is creepy, stalker behavior and it gave me no hope that he will not indulge in other controlling behavior later in the story. I predicted that he would abduct her and/or make her his sex slave in no time at all, but felt no desire to find out.

As well as these major problems, I would also add that this huge tome could have used a thorough editing. The Bodleian was not the only subject of pages of unnecessary detail and I calculate that almost one fifth of the book could have been deleted to improve the readability and plot flow. I realize that many people liked this book an awful lot: I just cannot work out why.

Other Reviews:

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch: Part 1

If you haven't read the book, or the whole series, why not join in and read along with the rest of us? This week the links to the other posts can be found at Dab of Darkness.

This week we read through to the end of Intersect 1.

1) We get to reminisce with several old friends in this section - Carlo, Galdo, Chains. How did you like this? Bitter sweet or happy dance?

I loved this. They are such colorful characters that it is always excellent to spend time in their company learning more about them and sharing in their antics. I think most of us would agree that we would be quite happy to read several books packed with their back-stories, which are likely to be both shocking and entertaining. This is especially true for Chains, who has a long and very interesting past, no doubt. I like that we are seeing more depth to them and the dialogue is as educational and fascinating as ever. I especially loved the little detail of Chains being unhappy about Carlo singing the military song. I seem to remember that we learnt that he had been in the army at one point, but this was such a poignant and true scene that it had a very bittersweet quality to it.

I suppose that it is sad to see the young guys that we know will die horrible deaths, but I do not find myself thinking about that as I am carried along by their silliness and constant banter. Favorite bits so far: the twins and their ‘special’ way of communicating and the young Jean’s obvious fighting prowess.

2) Finally, the infamous Sabetha makes a physical appearance, albeit in Locke's reminisces. What are your impressions? How do you think the romance, if there is to be one, will play out?

We know that she eventually breaks Locke’s heart, so it is interesting to see that she is fairly uninterested in him at this point. Of course, I can see how this makes his heart-rending longing all the stronger, and I imagine that will only get worse as his teenage hormones begin to manifest. I am intrigued about why she continually dyes her hair from its natural red. I can only assume that red hair is uncommon in Camorr and so is noticeable and a liability. I would also love to know what she has been learning in all her time away from the lair.

Obviously Locke is totally smitten, but I am not sure that we will ever see a true romance between these two. Sabetha could quite easily break his heart without them ever getting together at all, so I will be interested to see if that is the direction we take.

3) After trying absolutely everything to save Locke, Jean still won't give up. What did you think of that little pep talk he gave Locke concerning Patience's offer of healing?

I was quite moved by Jean’s total desperation in the lead up to this scene. His clouded thinking was shown by his unwise and careless kidnapping of the doctor. I was actually surprised that it took so long for the local thugs to arrive at their door. I know that Locke is usually the brains of the outfit, but I thought that Jean was far too professional to be so sloppy: Chains would have been sadly disappointed. But even Jean can only bend so far and it was funny to see him snap and beat Locke around the head and neck with a good, old-fashioned, tongue-lashing. It is not often that we see Locke outmaneuvered in this way, so it was great fun. The truth behind everything that Jean said added to the weight of his words and finally made Locke see some sense. However, given how ill Locke is supposed to be, I can also understand why he simply wants to die and end the suffering.

4) Locke has a few caveats to working for the Bondsmage. Wise or just Locke grasping for some control over his life? What would you ask Patience?

It seems that the Bondsmagi are rather OCD about fulfilling their contracts, so it actually makes sense to try to negotiate some of the fine print with them. However, I do not trust Patience as far as I could spit her, so it may have been a total waste of time. We know that Locke likes to feel in control of his life, so that might have been part of his reason, though I suspect that it was more habit. He is a man who is always gambling and thinking of how to get the best end of any bargain, so he could hardly agree without making even a token effort at bargaining. It is also part of the persona that he hides behind and so is necessary to maintain that facade.

I am not convinced that they will necessarily survive their association with Patience because this is hardly likely to be a simple thing that she asking of them. Therefore, I doubt that it would make much difference what you asked her to guarantee and I would not waste my breath.

5) At the end of this section, we see that all is not as Patience laid it out. How much do you think Patience knows of the plot to off Locke and Jean? Do you see it interfering in the rigged election?

I imagine that the Bondsmagi spend a considerable amount of time plotting against each other in secret and this is one example of that. She might be well aware of the plot and could be using the Bastards as bait, which seems like a role that they have played several times before. She reminds me quite a lot of the Spider, so I would not be surprised if she working from a position of knowledge about most of the plots against her interests.

I am quite sure that it will make the process of rigging the election all the more interesting and lively, especially as we do not know how the various sides normally ‘encourage’ people to vote for them. I expect much mayhem and double, triple and quadruple crossing.

Other thoughts

I think my only criticism so far is with the set up to test Locke’s willingness to kill Sabetha. I realized fairly early on that it was a set up, which I found disappointing because I am normally terrible at spotting what is going to happen later on. I thought the fact that Sabetha was the one to actually go in and do the theft was a huge pointer, especially as both she and Chains had gone on about Locke not taking anything extra from the stash. Perhaps this just shows that the younger Locke was not as astute as he was to become, and we certainly know that he is always very cautious now and always assumes that everyone is lying to him, so it was a lesson well learned.

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan: Week 2

If you haven't read the book, or the whole series, why not join in and read along with the rest of us? This week the links to the other posts can be found at Dab of Darkness.

This week we read through to the end of Chapter 6.

1. Rand seems to have taken Lan's advice and is avoiding Aviendha at all costs. How will this turn out for them? Who do you think he had in mind when he asked Mat about being in love?

I think Rand and Aviendha are destined to be together, so any attempts they make to avoid this outcome will be pointless. At the moment it will probably make them both feel a little more in control of their lives, but it will have no lasting effect on their relationship. After all, Lan is not exactly an expert on the female animal himself, not when it comes to romantic relationships.

He could easily have been thinking of all three of his women, but it seems most likely that he would be most concerned about Aviendha given her proximity and their one night of sexytimes. That episode with Mat was more like a stream of consciousness, so I will draw a veil over the fact that Mat is probably as useful for relationship advice as Lan! :D

2. A bunch of men waiting to go mad, what could possibly go wrong?! What lies in the future for these fellows? Is Rand right in trusting Taim with this?

I was almost surprised to find that any men had volunteered to join his merry band, although it would be interesting to know how many of them were not really interested in being able to channel and just wanted to be part of something famous. It would seem that few of the men will be able to channel, naturally or taught, so most of them will be sent back to their normal lives. This might be pretty bad for them as they obviously left those lives for a good reason. Perhaps the no-hopers will be kept on to labor on the farm or practice various trades.

I think we were all fairly unsure about Taim and his trustworthiness. However, Rand is not walking into this blindly, so if Taim does turn against him it will not be much of a surprise. I think Rand’s approach is understandable and pragmatic: he will use Taim for as long as he can because he needs the help. Who knows, perhaps Rand’s apparent trust will earn loyalty from Taim where indifference might not.

3. Rand's forces just won't cooperate. Do you expect more rebellions? Is Rand making the right choice in leaving this one to fester?

I am not sure that open rebellion will be much of a recurring theme, especially once most people know that the Forsaken are out and about. Also, I suspect that turning one group of rebels into a smoking mark on the floor will do wonders for improved loyalty. I would also question just who is rebelling. I suspect that most ordinary soldiers will switch to Rand’s side once he throws a few lightning bolts about: it is their noble leaders who are the true rebels.

Although I can understand the desire to squash this rebellion at once, I think that Rand is doing the most practical thing and resisting the temptation to waste resources chasing them around in the back woods. I am quite sure that he has consulted with Bashere and Mat about this and is not simply acting alone. These three have some sort of cunning plan set up to destroy Sammael and the rebels pose no direct threat to anything important so they can be ignored at the moment. Perhaps he can just leave them to slowly starve to death whilst they bicker amongst themselves.

4. It seems like the theme of chapter 4 is humor. Who did you find funniest? What's your best joke?

I thought Rand’s joke was funny, mainly because we were not given a proper description of any of the Aiel ones. I fail to see how someone stabbing their wife can be hilarious, but I would have liked to have heard the whole thing so that I could make a judgment.

I am more likely to tell funny stories than quick jokes, so I am afraid that I do not have a favorite joke.

5. Did Mat just… become an adoptive father? Mat doesn't strike me as the fatherly type. How do you think this will work for him (and his officers, and of course Olver)?

Perhaps adoptive uncle would be a better description, as I doubt that he will be a major force for discipline in the poor kid’s life. I thought that this was a surprise, but, then again, we know that Mat is a true softy at heart, so it was probably only a matter of time before he adopted a lost child or abused puppy. He will try to appear all uncaring and macho, but Olver will be well cared for now.

I think that the rest of the Band will totally love this move. They already worship Mat, with his amazing luck and astounding military tactics, so to see him adopting strays will make him even more admirable in their eyes. I predict that Olver will be adopted by the whole group and taken to be their unofficial mascot.

6. It's time to discuss forsaken intrigue yet again. Could you decipher anything from that chat between Graendal and Sammael? Does anyone else feel like Sammael has made a big mistake somewhere?

Sammael is yet another character who is so convinced of his own rightness that he is blind to anything else. I am fairly certain that Graendal outmaneuvered him, although there were so many feints and bluffs within bluffs that I was getting a little confused. However, having been inside Sammael’s head during the conversation, I do believe that she is correct in her assessment of the man and that he has underestimated her. I suspect that she will be one of the last Forsaken to be defeated because she has such a great understanding of the human mind and so can manipulate people with ease.

I was shocked and intrigued by the appearance of the two people from Shara. We know that Graendal herself is based in Arad Doman, but this shows that she, at least, has been to Shara and is actively involved with the people there. I want to know more about this society, especially because it seems to have a very sensible approach to its channelers, with an intensive breeding program in place. This suggests that they will be plentiful and possibly more powerful than those in Randland where the Aes Sedai have effectively been pushing the ability into extinction.

7. Just how scary is Semirhage now, and what could Shaidar Haran possibly want with this poor Aes Sedai (who, I believe, we have never seen before)?

I thought that the descriptions of Semirhage last week were chilling, but we now know that she is a totally evil psychopath. Someone needs to kill her very soon.

I assume that the Aes Sedai has some vital information about the Salidar Aes Sedai. We now know that Mesaana is working within the White Tower, so I assume that she is providing all the intelligence that he needs from there. I can understand how it would be difficult to get a spy into Salidar, where all the Sisters are watching one another and being cautious, though this does seem rather extreme. The fact that we have not heard of her before suggests that she is nobody important, but that would make her a perfect target if you wanted only general information about the place and how it is set up. She would have passwords and such like, but nobody would be too suspicious if she went missing.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sue's Saturday Suggestions #71

Interesting Books

I have listed these titles in earlier SSS posts: check out my SSS Books Page for links to more reviews:

The Lives (and Deaths) of Tao by Wesley Chu, review at Bookworm Blues

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman, review at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke, review at Bibliotropic

Redshirts by John Scalzi, review at Bibliotropic


November is Sci-Fi Month at Rinn Reads – check out the extensive schedule

Author Interviews

Welsey Chu at Bookworm Blues

Freda Warrington at SF Signal

Jan DeLima

Celtic Moon Spotlight & Giveaway at Grave Tells

Interview & Giveaway at Manga Maniac Cafe

Interview & Giveaway at Rabid Reads

Time For A Rethink? An Update

A couple of weeks ago I had a crisis of confidence and decided to re-evaluate my blogging. I hope you have noticed that I found the self-discipline to start posting reviews on a regular basis (Wednesdays and Fridays), which should mean that I get through the backlog in a few months or so . . . I plan to keep to this schedule as much as possible especially as it is working so far without too much life-altering angst.

However, I have decided to make one rather important change to my blogging, which might sound a little strange at first but it makes sense to me. Ever since I started this blog I have had a nagging desire to share my great love for books set in Rome. Admittedly, I am mostly interested in reading the ones set in Ancient Rome, especially the mysteries written by authors such as Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor (you can check out this post for more gushing), but I recently read one set in the modern city and realized that I loved that just as much. I have also been given the task of planning a family vacation in Italy next spring or early summer, which will be my first return to that fair country for four years. This means that I will need to dust off my well-worn pocket dictionary and reacquaint myself with the wonderful Italian language. Then there is Jan DeLima and her insistence that I should write a book of my own which provoked a flash of inspiration the other night for a way to combine Ancient Rome with my experiences living in rural Scotland . . .

All of this has turned my thoughts back to the Eternal City and made me decide to start that other blog. I am busy working on a color scheme and graphics, but that can be a seemingly never-ending process, so I will not give you a launch date just yet. All I will say is, “Watch this space!” :D

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